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Experts: Don't just fight fires — fortify communities

More than a dozen wildfires are burning around the state, and the season isn't over yet.

But experts say we need to pay more attention to how homes affect fires and the resulting contamination.

"If we're talking about wildland-urban interface, then we need to start thinking about the urban within that wildland urban interface. And right now, historically, at the federal level and as a society, the inertia within us is to think that we can look at the forest and solve our way out of this," said Kimiko Barrett, lead wildfire research and policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan independent research organization based in Bozeman, Montana.

At the federal level, the U.S. spends $65 million per wildfire, to say nothing of the price in lives, jobs and safety. But homes burn longer than vegetation, creating embers that can spread fire for miles, and contain materials that can contaminate water supplies.

"We can continue to spend money on forest treatments and suppressing them, but they're going to happen no matter what," said Barrett. "We'll never get to the point of domesticating a natural wildfire. So investing more in that upfront planning of inevitability, I think, is incredibly critical."

Instead, Barrett calls for upfront mitigation and preparation, with state, local and federal financial and technical support.

That includes passing basic fire safety laws and requiring homes to be built with fire-resistant materials.

"Basic mitigation measures in terms of construction materials, also known as home hardening, can be done at a pretty negligible cost differential from what would be traditional building materials," said Barrett, citing as an example HardiPlank fiber cement siding, which is cheaper and much more fire-resistant than wood siding.

Barrett also mentioned composition shingles as a cheaper, more wildfire-resistant alternative to wooden shake-shingle roofs.

"Alternatively, if you go with a metal, which is noncombustible, you're gonna see a cost increase. But if you take it collectively as a whole, here in the intermountain West, it's a 2% difference," she said.

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.